O is for Observing Things From Outside To Get An Overview And Then Exploring The Potential Options  

There are many ways to look at situations. One approach is to observe things from the outside and get an overview of what is really happening. It is then to explore the potential options for going forwards.

This was a technique I was taught during my early days leading group therapy sessions. My mentor instructed me to do the following things.

To be hands on, fully present and give my full attention to the people in the group. 

To simultaneously helicopter above the situation to get an overview, see patterns and focus on the behaviour of each person in the group. 

To clarify what was happening, consider the best option for going forwards and then return to helping people in the group.

Several years later I found that peak performers often adopted this approach. Whilst being fully present, they also hovered about the situation.

Such workers had the ability to see the whole picture, recognise patterns and anticipate what may happen. Staying ahead of the game, they then pursued their chosen strategy for achieving the desired results.

Looking back on your life, can you think of a situation when you were able to observe things as if from outside? Different people give different answers to this question. One paramedic answered it in the following way.

This happens for me when I arrive at the scene of an accident. I try to see what is happening on the ground and deal with any life-threatening injuries.  

At the same time, however, I hover above the scene to get a complete picture. This process takes a short time, but it is vital to understand the situation.

I decide what needs to be done in both the short and medium-term. I then do my best to translate this plan into action.

When have you done something similar? You may have been making a decision, dealing with a challenge or tackling another situation. What did you do then to distance yourself, see things objectively and choose your way forwards?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation when you observed things from the outside to get an overview and then explored the potential options for going forwards.   

Describe the specific things you did then to take these steps. 

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of you taking these steps.

Observing things from the
outside and getting an overview

Different people use different techniques for taking this step. These often involve staying calm and, in some cases, draining themselves of emotion to avoid getting sucked into the drama.

People then reframe the situation. Let’s explore some of the techniques they use to take this step.

Reframing things
by self-distancing

Some people use what psychologists call self-distancing. One approach is for the person to imagine that they are giving advice to a friend who is in a similar situation. They are then more able to make good decisions.

Self-distancing involves being objective  

It involves clarifying what advice the person would
give to the friend in a similar situation about:

How to stay calm, see the big picture and observe what is actually happening.

How to clarify the real results they want to achieve – the picture of success. 

How to clarify the potential options for going forwards and the consequences – the pluses and minuses – of each option.

How to settle on their chosen option, make an action plan and work towards achieving their picture of success. 

The person then returns to the present and clarifies how they can follow these principles in their own way. Self-distancing can help people to make measured decisions rather than be overcome by emotion.

Reframing things by seeing them as a
chance to do some creative problem solving

Robert Muller, an Assistant General Secretary of the United Nations, was somebody who reframed challenging situations as a chance to find creative solutions. He had lots of opportunity to do this in his work at the United Nations.

Robert also adopted this approach as a student when he was hunted by the Nazis during the Second World War. One day he found himself trapped in an attic on the top floor of an hotel that also served as an office building. Several Nazis entered the reception area and asked people where they could find Robert.

How could he escape the hunters? Drawing on his positive attitude to life, Robert began thinking of creative solutions. He explained his approach in the following way.

I was a great fan of Hollywood films, so I decided to see the situation as taking part in a film. I was being hunted, so how could I find a way to escape?

David Gillies takes up the story in his biography about Robert called The Hatmaker’s Son. Here are excerpts from David’s book.

Robert took several deep breaths.  

“I must overcome my fear and think rationally,” he decided. This was the moment of moments to be creative.  

“What an opportunity, what a tremendous adventure – a 20-year old student trapped by Nazis in a fancy hotel. Won’t it be great if I slip through their fingers?” 

Robert took a few minutes to consider his options. The Nazis had some idea what he looked like but they probably had an old photo. How could he take on a different persona?

They were also expecting to find a cowering student trying to hide in the milling crowds on each floor of the building. How could he be ingenious and do what the Nazis least expected?

Robert settled on his plan and began translating it into action. This involved making his way down four floors from the attic and walking out onto the street.

Putting a thick file under his arm, he exuded an air of authority as he made his way from floor to floor. Nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, he passed various groups of people.

Reaching the ground floor he approached a group of Nazis who were quizzing the receptionist. She chose not to recognise him, even though she was being threatened.

Robert went up to the Nazis and asked what was happening. They replied they were looking for Louis Parizot (the name by which Robert was known in the building).

He responded by saying he had seen Parizot on the top floor. Just like in a film, the Nazis rushed up the stairs. Robert then made his way out onto the street and rode away on a bike.

Different people use different approaches to find creative solutions to challenges. One approach is to use the Three C approach and focus on clarity, creativity and concrete results.

Good decision makers start by clarifying the ‘What’ before moving on to the ‘How’. Bearing this in mind, they explore the following themes.


What is the challenge I want to tackle? For example: How to …? Looking at this challenge, what are the real results I want to achieve? What is the picture of success? What are the things I can control in the situation? How can I build on what I can control and manage what I can’t? 


What are the possible choices for tackling the challenge? Option A is … Option B is … Option C is  … What are the consequences – the pluses and minuses – of each option? How attractive are each of these options on a scale 0-10? Are there any other potential creative solutions?

Concrete Results

What is the option – or combination of options – I want to follow? How can I translate this into a clear action plan? Are there any working contracts I need to make with other people to make this happen? How can I do my best to deliver the desired concrete results?

You can discover more about this approach via the following link.

Creative Problem Solving

Reframing things by focusing
on the principles that work

Another approach is to follow the principles that work in a particular situation. It is then to follow these guidelines in a professional way.

Bearing this in mind, it can be useful to study success in a particular field. You can study what works – such as the principles people follow to achieve success – and then follow these principles in your own way.

Virginia Duffy has helped many people to take these steps when faced by difficulties. She specialises in helping paramedics, first responders and those in the caring professions. Her book Behavioral First Aid: Managing Emotions During Emergencies provides many practical tools they can use in stressful situations.

Virginia describes how to deal with situations when working with individuals who may be anxious, suicidal, psychotic or under the influence of drugs. Below is an example in which she shows how to deal with a disturbed patient who is threatening others with violence.

The most important consideration is for the safety of any people being threatened, any bystanders, the patient and the rescuer. Virginia then offers the following suggestions for the rescuer who is aiming to diffuse the situation.

Dealing with a potentially violent situation

Dos: What to say and do

Do remove the means of violence whenever possible.

Do keep sentences short. Repeat clearly and often the minimum you need to say. 

Do stay at a safe distance. 

Do use only one lead person. 

Do talk slowly in a quiet, calm voice.

Do maintain a calm, non-threatening environment. Reduce noise and lights.

Do listen and ask for clarification of the patient’s statements.

Do make empathetic statements. 

Do bring important persons (from the patient’s point of view) to the scene. 

Do evaluate the patient’s response to your comments and reuse the techniques that have the most positive effect. 

Do allow the patient to somehow save face. Avoid the patient feeling he must ‘give in’.

Do give the patient as much control as possible. Offer choices where feasible.  

Don’ts: What not to say and do

Do not joke.  

Do not try to reason with the person under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

Do not give complicated instructions. 

Do not touch the person or get too close. 

Do not have more than one person talking to the patient at a time.

Do not talk too loud or too fast.

Do not overwhelm the patient with stimuli. 

Do not interpret what the patient is saying or jump to conclusions.  

Do not be judgmental.

Do not reply to verbal challenges. Avoid debate and confrontation.

Do not be condescending or patronising.

Do not allow others at the scene who agitate the patient.

Do not give commands or challenges.

Reframing things by
seeing them as a project

There are many ways to deal with events in life. On some occasions it is good to experience all the emotions. On other occasions, however, can be useful to have a certain detachment.

This is especially so when dealing with difficult challenges. One approach is to reframe things as projects. You can then do your best to achieve success in the particular project.

Looking at my own life, I followed this path when dealing with an illness. Because I had gone for frequent health checks, I was fortunate to get an early diagnosis for prostate cancer. This led to getting non-intrusive treatment.

Being an educator, I was able to redefine the situation as an opportunity to share knowledge that might help others. So it was possible to ask myself:

How can I use this situation? What can I learn from it? How can I pass on knowledge in a way that might help others in the future?

This led to creating a blog for men who might be diagnosed with prostate cancer. Whilst not being qualified to give medical advice, I offered ideas that individual patients could use to navigate their own journey.

As a result people contacted me and explored various avenues before deciding on their own treatment. This led to some choosing non-intrusive methods to deal with the prostate cancer.

The project approach has been used by many people to reframe challenging situations. You will, of course, have your own approach to tackling such issues.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a potential situation when you may want to observe things from the outside and then choose your way forwards? This could be in your personal or professional life.

You may want to take this approach when going through a transition, making a key decision or tackling a difficult challenge. You may want to take it when helping a troubled person, dealing with a crisis or tacking another issue.

How can you stay calm in the situation? How can observe things as if from the outside? How can you see what is actually happening? How can you explore the potential options? How can you then settle on your strategy for going forwards?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to look to the future and do the following things.

Describe a specific situation when you may want to observe things from the outside to get an overview and then explore the potential options for going forwards.

Describe the specific things you can do then to take these steps.

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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